With Manchester United closing on a deal for Alvaro Morata, we look at how his style would suit them, compared to other possible targets Andrea Belotti, Alexandre Lacazette and Romelu Lukaku.
When the list of players released by Premier League sides was published on Friday, it wasn’t too great a shock to see Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s name. Yes, the Swede – a free signing from PSG last summer – has scored more Premier League goals (17) than any other Manchester United player since August 2015, but the 35-year-old is sidelined until the new year with a knee problem. Sentimental value would be the only reason for United to exercise the option of extending Ibrahimovic’s contract by a further year, yet his release leaves manager Jose Mourinho short of striking options.
Marcus Rashford’s continued development means Mourinho’s attack isn’t lacking in quality, but rather quantity on the frontline.
As one might expect, United are set to spend big to boost their attack this summer, and for a while it seemed anyone’s guess as to who they would pursue, particularly as the Antoine Griezmann saga ground to an unforeseen halt in light of Atletico’s transfer ban.
The stand-out candidate now, though, seems to be Alvaro Morata, though Andrea Belotti, Alexandre Lacazette and Romelu Lukaku continue to be linked with moves to Old Trafford.
The move for Lukaku looks to be dead in the water, with the Belgian favouring a return to Chelsea, but reports of United’s interest came as little surprise. Mourinho favours a powerful forward to lead the line over someone to hang on the shoulder of the last defender and make runs in behind defences to capitalise on any balls over the top. Indeed, Rashford rarely got a look in as the lead striker before Ibrahimovic’s season-ending injury, while links with Morata and Belotti suggest the United boss will adopt a similar approach.
The difference between Ibrahimovic and Morata, say, is the latter is a far more mobile forward compared to the former. The Spain international is renowned for his defensive contribution and tireless work off the ball, two traits Mourinho looks for in a striker.
Morata averaged 1 tackle per 90 in Spain’s top tier last term and while not a return to shout from the rooftops, it’s worth noting that Real Madrid would often dominate teams, meaning the 24-year-old would rarely need to exhibit this side to his game. Often used from the bench – 12 of Morata’s 26 league appearances last season were as a sub – means he’d come on against tiring teams, thus minimising his need to hound the opposition into sacrificing possession.
When not on the ball going forward also, the Spain international’s willingness to pull to the flanks would be a huge benefit to a United side that often deploys pacey wingers.
Morata is not only prepared to remain stationary in the final third, but work hard to run the channels to provide another outlet for teammates. With the likes of Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan all routinely deployed out wide, they can use their speed to occupy the space that Morata vacates in order to help pry teams apart. With the Real Madrid frontman offering up 1.1 key passes per 90 in La Liga last season, if he can get onto the end of passes out wide, he has the means to create for his teammates.
Yet for all the needs of a modern day striker, they still have to put the ball in the back of the net, which is another aspect of Morata’s game that is improving in time. Of the 26 players to score 10 or more goals in Spain’s top tier last term, only Isco (31.3%) had a better conversion rate than Morata (27.3%). With 15 league goals to his name – only a certain Cristiano Ronaldo (25) bagged more of all Real Madrid players – he certainly made his time on the pitch count as he scored once every 88.7 minutes, a return bettered only by Lionel Messi of those to have netted five or more goals, who scored every 76.5 minutes in La Liga last season.
‘Jury remains out on Morata’
That being said, the jury remains out on Morata. During his two seasons with Juventus, he managed just 15 leagues, yet balanced that out with a number of strong showings in the Champions League, particularly in the Old Lady’s run to the 2014/15 final, where he scored five goals in six knockout games and hit the back of the net in the 3-1 loss to Barcelona in the final.
This experience in Europe’s elite club competition will be vital for a United side returning to feast at the main table following their Europa League triumph and is perhaps a reason why Morata is a more viable target that Belotti. As impressive as the Italian was in Serie A last term, netting 26 goals for Torino, it was his first prolific campaign of his career.
A lack of experience in European competition means the 23-year-old may struggle to balance both league and continental duties for a team of United’s stature, where success is demanded with each passing campaign. What’s more is that there is an £87m release clause in Belotti’s contract that can only be triggered by a non-Italian side. Torino are understandably keen to sell him abroad for this very reason, yet it’s a fee that has deterred United, while the pressure of playing up to such a price could impact Belotti’s development.
There is no denying that the Italian striker has a bright future ahead of him, but such a move to a team of United’s stature may come too soon for Belotti.
Different approach from Lacazette
Lacazette, meanwhile, offers a differing approach. He’s familiar in playing as the lone striker, but lacks the physical qualities that Morata and Belotti would bring. Despite Atletico Madrid’s transfer ban, he still favours a move to Spain, though that is unlikely to deter potential suitors at this point. A conversion rate of 33.3% means that the France international has the goalscoring quality to improve United’s attacking options.
Mourinho’s side missed more clear-cut goalscoring opportunities (50) than any other Premier League side last season, and so a striker boasting Lacazette’s finishing ability would certainly appeal to the fans, yet you get the impression that the Frenchman’s capture would go against the grain for the United boss, with his style more similar to that of Rashford than a Mourinho style forward.
With the options narrowing, Morata is perhaps the best available to United and Mourinho, but that is by no means a bad thing.
The Spaniard continues to improve and with sufficient playing time, has the means to better his goalscoring record, yet it isn’t just his goal return that appeals to Mourinho, with the mobility and hard work off the ball crucial traits for the Portuguese manager.
In a system to suit the needs of Morata, he could prove to be an inspired signing for a United side striving to re-establish itself as the best in England.